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Expert Tips for Managing Student Lab Assistants

Mary Gobbett, MS, draws on 25 years of experience as a biology lab coordinator to help students evolve into project planners, team players, and leaders.

Educator

Mary Gobbett, MS

Assistant Professor of Biology, University of Indianapolis in Indiana

MS and BS in General Biology

Behind every perfect wedding is a planner who takes care of all the details, from ordering the food to making sure that each person walks down the aisle at the right moment. You might not think that has anything to do with running a biology lab, but the same type of management skills apply, according to Mary Gobbett, MS, who has been the lab coordinator at the University of Indianapolis for the last 25 years.

“[Running a lab is] like the behind-the-scenes of a wedding or dinner party,” she says. “Everything behind the scenes is most important. We spend so much more time planning, getting it ready, and preparing it. It lasts an hour, and then we take it down and start all over again.”

Running the lab effectively, she notes, is key to the success of the whole department, which includes 15 professors teaching a wide range of courses. “[If you’re a biology professor], you can’t plan a lab without [us]. [We’re] ordering all your stuff, prepping all your stuff, setting things up for you. You can’t do a lab with living organisms on Monday if you want them fresh and the supplier only delivers on Wednesdays.”

Fortunately for Gobbett—who has her own course load to teach, including such classes as Great Discoveries in Biology and Biology’s Impact on Humans—there are 20 student lab assistants to help her each semester. “Besides earning money and learning skills, working as a lab assistant gives students great experience,” she says. “They can put it on their resume, and it can help them when they’re applying for med school or internships.”

Gobbett’s goal for the lab is twofold: to support the department and to make the experience “as real as possible” for the students under her supervision. Like any good scientist, she is always testing and refining her methods, but she has some solid insights to share with anyone interested in creating a similar program at their school. She shares seven helpful tips below.

Context

“Besides earning money and learning skills, working as a lab assistant gives students great experience. They can put it on their resume, and it can help them when they’re applying for med school or internships.”

— Mary Gobbett, MS

Course: Biol 203-01 Biology’s Impact on Humans

Course description:

Four credit hour biology department face-to face course designed for non-majors, such as public health students, who are interested in a one semester introduction to the science of biology and its impact on the way humans live. Guiding questions for the course include; What is life made of?; How does life reproduce?; How does life change over time?; How do organisms interact?; What makes plants unique?; and How do animals work? Emphasis will be placed on understanding central life science concepts, tools of inquiry, the basic nature of science, practical methods for understanding biology concepts, and impacts on human health.

See resources shared by Mary Gobbett, MS

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7 tips for managing student lab assistants

Here are the methods Gobbett follows to create the most meaningful experience for her students, while providing the Biology Department with the support it needs:

1. Create clear, specialized roles

Gobbett lets the students know exactly what they are responsible for in supporting the biology labs. These are the positions currently available:

  • Media Maker for Microbiology Courses
  • Culture Assistant for Microbiology Courses
  • Prep Assistant for Microbiology, General Biology, Physiology, Cell Biology, and Genetics
  • Setup Assistant for General Biology
  • General Assistant for Prep Room
  • Animal Caretaker
  • Plant Caretaker
  • Office Assistant

In each job description, Gobbett specifies everyday duties, as well as whom the student will interact with and in what capacity. Having specific roles can help prepare students for a future role in their key area of interest. “One student who was taking care of animals recently got an internship at the zoo, and one who did the cultures in microbiology ended up going to grad school for microbiology,” she says.

Gobbett further clarifies the jobs by assigning each lab assistant to support just one course area and to work with professors teaching those specific courses. “It’s as if the course or the professor is the ‘client’ who needs the stuff you’re prepping,” she tells them.

2. Give them ownership of their role

Let them figure things out so they can learn, advises Gobbett. “In the past, I told them what needed to be done. But [now] I want them to take a more independent role where they figure things out for themselves. There’s an emphasis on problem solving.”

To that end, she assigns each lab assistant a filing cabinet folder and binder tied to a specific course and instructs them, “‘You have to make sure I’ve ordered what you need. You have to think ahead. You have to communicate with me and communicate with your faculty.’ I’m teaching them how to be project planners.” They also need to think about how to improve the lab for the next time it needs to be prepared. It usually will be needed the following semester as well, so they have to make corrections and reflect after the lab is completed.

3. Make the lab feel like home

If the lab is a comfortable place for lab assistants, they will hang out there, even when not working, says Gobbett, who added tables to the prep room so that her lab assistants could more easily congregate. “There’s a social aspect to it,” she says. “It’s like a Biology Club that allows them to just spend time with one another.” The more they are in the prep room, she adds, the more they share best practices—and the more she gets to know each of them as individuals.

4. Help students take a holistic view

Managing the logistics of a lab entails a lot of planning, says Gobbett. Professors often will write what they need, in terms of materials, but every task must be figured out down to its finest detail. This means not only getting the right supplies, sterilizing equipment, and loading the cart—but also thinking through every step of the upcoming experiment. “If [the students doing the lab] need 20 ml of something, do we have it in stock? And did we get them something to measure the 20 ml?” asks Gobbett. She also makes sure to impress upon students that they need to look out for the professor using the lab, while also keeping in mind the one who used it before and the one who will use it next.

5. Be prepared for problems

“I’m the fire putter-outer and the problems-and-issues overseer,” says Gobbett, who serves as a project manager and liaison between faculty and lab assistants. One semester the team did not deliver on time, leading to contaminated supplies, poor quality control, and canceled microbiology labs. Rather than saving the day, though, she gave them a pep talk. “You have to communicate with your faculty,” she told them. “We have to work with our clients. We have to figure out why something isn’t working,” she says. Teamwork is essential to solving these problems, she explains.

6. Use setbacks to generate improvements

Whether the freezer conks out or a fire alarm goes off, Gobbett sees it as an opportunity to employ the scientific method. The contamination prompted various meetings between her, her lab workers, and the faculty to ensure such a thing would not happen again. As a result, current lab assistants are creating a visual binder for future workers—photographing what works well in setting up the lab and writing up guidelines and best practices. “We’re noting what worked and didn’t work,” says Gobbett. “We’re focusing now on how to make [good results] more repeatable.”

7. Listen to your assistants’ suggestions

Finally, Gobbett notes that each semester offers its own learning experiences for her as a supervisor. In keeping with her strong belief in open communication, she makes sure to listen to her assistants’ ideas and adjusts her approach when they make a good case for change. For example, it was the lab assistants who came to Gobbett to suggest an update to the number of roles available. Originally, when Media Maker was a one-person job, the student who held the position graduated and left behind “a hot mess.” The remaining lab assistants suggested divvying the work among three positions—a solution that Gobbett embraced and continues to follow today.

Outcomes

Gobbett says that many of the student assistants begin their work as nervous, unskilled freshmen; ultimately, through their experiences, they end as juniors and seniors with strong recommendations from professors for their lab assistant success.

“It is wonderful to see students who have worked in the prep room to come back to visit during Homecoming and state how being a lab assistant really made an impact on their career paths, and how they gained much more than just prep skills,” Gobbett says. “It is always sad to see them graduate, but—like any good teacher or parent—you feel good about the mentoring, guidance, and experiences that will help them in the next phase of their lives.”

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